Vegetarians abstain from eating meat, fish, and chicken, and opt instead to eat a plant-based diet. It’s characterized as being high in fiber and low in fat, especially the unhealthy kind.
People can embark on a vegetarian diet for a number of reasons and recently, this type of diet has become more available and tempting to the palate than before.
The American Dietetic Association states that
“appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and will give health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."
In short, a vegetarian diet is all about balance. It’s important to include a variety of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
Replacing trans-fats with good fats, found in nuts, olive and canola oils, will also provide you with essential nutrients while reducing the calories.
Types of Vegetarians
There are 3 types of diets within the vegetarian category:
- Total vegetarians (aka vegans): excludes all kinds of meat and animal-based products of all kinds.
- Lacto - vegetarians: no consumption of meat, chicken, and fish, but allow milk and its products.
- Lacto - ovo - vegetarians: no consumption of any type of meat, but allow milk and eggs.
- Vegetarians, on the whole, have lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
- They also have a lower body mass index (BMI) - because they consume less saturated fat and more minerals, vitamins phytochemicals.
- They also tend to refrain from smoking, excess drinking and are more motivated to exercise on a regular basis.
- All these factors combined lead to a reduced rate of chronic and severe diseases such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and cancer.
Nutritional Concerns For Vegetarians
Since a vegetarian’s diet is rather limited, it’s vital to include the following nutrients in your diet:
- Vitamin B12
Plant foods lack this vitamin so a regular source of this vitamin is important since this vitamin is crucial for your brain health. Vitamin B12 is also vital for maintaining energy levels, as well as iron levels in the blood.
A poor consumption of protein leads to poor growth development, nail, skin and hair issues, fatty liver, edema, and a weak immune system, loss of muscle and bone density. If the right food combination is eaten, then protein from plant foods can meet your daily protein needs. But bear in mind that higher quality protein, derived from animal products, is better absorbed than proteins derived from plants.
Vegetarians usually require iron more than non - vegetarians because plant-based iron sources don’t absorb as well as meat-based. Increasing your iron intake and eat foods high in vitamin C are important to augment iron absorption. The main reason behind the high risk of iron deficiencies in vegetarians is the absence of meat which contains high levels of iron, compared with plant-based food sources. The former is also more easily absorbed by the body.
Another mineral vegetarians run low on is zinc. Good sources of zinc are legumes, nuts, soy foods, and supplemented foods. Studies show that our diets, even non-vegetarian, lead to zinc deficiency. Add to that the limited restrictions of a vegetarian diet and you get an even higher level of zinc deficiency. This essential trace element is important for maintaining hormone functions and reproductive health, as well as preserving insulin functioning, and mental and cardiovascular health. It can be found in spinach, flax and pumpkin seeds, kidney beans, garlic, and peanuts. Supplements also work to giving your body the amount of zinc it requires.
- Calcium and vitamin D
Compared to non - vegetarians, calcium intake is rather low. In fact, it’s known that vegetarians, especially vegans, have a higher fracture rate. So it’s advised for lacto - vegetarians to have soy milk fortified with calcium and vitamin D, as well as getting a good amount of sun exposure.
- Vitamin A
Even though vegetarians may be deficient in vitamin A, it’s easily corrected by boosting your intake of certain foods. It’s important to know, however, that there are 2 types of vitamin A:
1. Retinoids, or retinol, which derive from animal-based foods, such as liver and egg yolks.
2. Carotenoids which derive from plant-based foods, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and leafy greens.
The trick to optimal vitamin A absorption is that when you’re a vegetarian and consume only carotenoids, your body will convert it to retinoids before making use of them. Also, vitamin D boosts absorption even more.
- Vitamin K
Another vitamin that vegetarians usually risk getting low doses of is vitamin K. This can lead to increased risk of bone fractures since vitamin K helps maintain bone health by transporting calcium throughout the body. It’s also responsible for normal blood clotting. It can be found in kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.
Even though vegetarians have low levels of riboflavin, is easily fixed by eating regular amounts of bananas, broccoli, yogurt, soy, almonds, fortified breakfast cereals, and milk.
The first few months of your vegetarian diet, you’ll feel lighter and have more energy mainly because your body is no longer consuming processed junk food.
But if you’re not careful, you can end up with nutritional deficiencies which can have real consequences.
Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist to learn about the best food options for you.